Politics

Arkansas residents petition to vote on abortion rights amendment

ABC News

(LITTLE ROCK, Ark.) — Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, Arkansas has been home to one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. Now abortion-rights advocates are petitioning to get a proposed amendment on the November ballot that would allow voters to decide whether abortion care should be enshrined in the state constitution.

Chelsea and Thomas Stovall are among the volunteers canvassing Arkansas streets, asking for people to sign a petition that would allow voters to decide if abortion should be legal in Arkansas.

“As soon as we found out about the ballot initiative, we were some of the first to come and sign up,” said Chelsea Stovall. “It wasn’t enough to change anything so we had to get more involved.”

Abortion rights is a personal issue for the couple. In 2022, the Stovalls were excited to be expecting their third child, but at a 20-week appointment they learned that their daughter had a fatal fetal anomaly and would not survive.

Chelsea Stovall did not qualify for the one exception to Arkansas’ abortion ban: to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency. As a result, the couple had to spend thousands of dollars and travel hundreds of miles to Illinois to terminate their pregnancy.

“It is painful to relive that over and over again,” Chelsea Stovall told “Nightline.” “But I think it’s so necessary to get people to understand that this is affecting real people.”

The Stovalls had been working to collect enough petition signatures to submit before the July 5 deadline. The amendment would restore abortion access up to 18 weeks post fertilization. After 18 weeks, abortion access would be allowed in circumstances such as fatal fetal anomaly, rape or incest, or to protect the mother’s life and health.

After the “Nightline” report aired on July 2, canvassers from Arkansans for Limited Government say they have surpassed 90,000 signatures from more than 50 counties, qualifying the amendment for November’s ballot. State officials have until August 22 to certify the measure.

Arkansas is one of the nearly dozen states where abortion rights could be up to voters this November. However, amendment supporters say it is not getting as much attention as initiatives in presidential election swing states like Arizona and Florida.

“I think we already know which way the state is going to go with regards to the presidency,” said Dr. Chad Taylor, an OB-GYN in Arkansas. “But I think what’s really important for people to know is that you can vote for whoever you want at the top of the ticket, and you can still support this amendment.”

In the two years since Roe v. Wade was overturned, six states, including Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio, have voted on ballot initiatives regarding abortion access. Voters in all six states have supported abortion rights.

The Stovalls appeared in ABC News’ “Impact x Nightline” documentary “On the Brink.” Thomas Stovall said in the 2023 special that he was once “100% against” abortions, even in cases of rape. But now, since the couple’s personal experience of losing their daughter, he has changed his mind and sees abortion as a private medical decision for families to make with their health care provider.

“It’s not that necessarily I went from one side to the other, it’s more that I had all the right information in front of me now and I know the full story,” said Thomas Stovall. “Before I only had half the story, I only had what I was raised and taught.”

As the couple now confronts the same ideas that Thomas Stovall once believed while out canvassing, the petition signing effort is sparking backlash from opponents of abortion. Some canvassers say that they have been run out of town by residents in smaller areas and even received death threats. In other places, protesters often set up near petition drives, with their own “Decline to Sign” events.

“This amendment is more extreme than Roe v. Wade,” said Jerry Cox, founder and president of Family Council, a conservative nonprofit group, which opposes the amendment. “It would obliterate all of the good laws that Arkansas has passed over the last 50 years to protect the health and safety of women.”

The amendment states that “the State of Arkansas, its officers, or its political subdivisions shall not prohibit, penalize, delay or restrict abortion services.”

“The amendment doesn’t define those words, but those are powerful words,” Cox said. He worries that the wording could negate Arkansas’ existing laws like parental notification for minors seeking abortions or mandatory waiting periods. Advocates for groups like Arkansans for Limited Government, which supports the amendment, says their lawyers disagree and do not think the amendment would impact those laws.

Family Council Action Committee is one of the seven groups opposing the abortion petition, with volunteers across the state, often reaching out through churches. But those fighting for the petition say the group has taken its efforts too far.

The committee recently posted a list of paid canvassers working to get signatures for the petition, including their names and hometowns. Some saw the action as doxxing.

“We took that as an act of intimidation,” said Gennie Diaz from Arkansas for Limited Government. “We have, unfortunately, had encounters with individuals who have threatened our volunteers and our paid canvassers, threatened to kill them. We have had to file police reports.”

Destiny Sinclair, one of the canvassers on the list, is a college student who also works a full-time job. She says she feels that Family Council has made her and everyone on the list a target.

“They doxed these canvassers, including myself, because they want to silence our voice,” said Sinclair. “And here I am using it even louder.”

Alison Guthrie, a paid canvasser who lives with her brother and disabled mother, says that Family Council potentially put her family at risk when the list went public.

“It’s taken my peace of mind. Every time I get a ring notification on my phone, I want to check and see, ‘OK, who’s at my front door?’” said Guthrie. “[I’m] out here fighting for what I believe in, but being put in danger because of what [Jerry Cox] believes in, I just don’t think is right.”

Cox believes that posting the list was necessary, he says, to be transparent with voters about who in their communities is collecting signatures. Cox stated that even though the committee could have published more information, including the canvassers’ home address and phone number, they did not.

“I don’t discount their concern, because we here at this office have had people actually threaten us,” Cox said. “I think the people have a right to know who’s getting paid to amend their constitution.”

Some volunteers believe that groups like Family Council are not the only ones working to stop the petition. State lawmakers are as well. The Arkansas State Constitution says petitions need to be signed by voters from at least 15 of the state’s 75 counties.

But last year, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law to make it 50 of the 75 counties, even though the voters had voted down a similar measure in 2020.

“I think [it’s] because they know that if it gets on the ballot, the people will vote for it,” said Veronica McClane, a long-time volunteer canvasser.

Despite the challenges, canvassers like Chelsea and Thomas Stovall say that they are determined to try.

“I just want to shake people and wake them up. Like, ‘do you not know what’s going on?’” said Chelsea Stovall. “It should be an easy thing. Just give the people the right to choose. Give them the right to vote.”

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